The success of one of Nato's principal tactics against the Taliban – targeted night raids aimed at killing or capturing leaders of the insurgency – may have been exaggerated to make the military campaign in Afghanistan look more effective, according to a new report published on Wednesday.
The study shows that for every "leader" killed in the raids, eight other people also died, although the raids were designed to be a precise weapon aimed at decapitating the Taliban on the battlefield by removing its commanders. The report also notes that in briefings to the US media, aggregate claims made for the number of Taliban leaders killed or detained over a given period were sometimes much greater than the numbers recorded in the daily press releases.
The report, by Kandahar-based researchers, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, looked at the daily press releases published by the Nato-led International Stability Assistance Force (Isaf), to create a profile of the "kill-or-capture raids" in a 22-month period from December 2009 to the end of September this year.
Van Linschoten also said the Isaf's definition of the word leader was "so broad as to be meaningless". He said that the words leader and "facilitator" were sometimes used interchangeably in the Isaf press releases, although facilitator could just be someone whose house an insurgent group is thought to have used. A previous study of night raids had found that many people classified as leaders captured in night raids had subsequently been released by Isaf.
"The use of the word 'leader' is intended to convey the impression that the masterminds of the Taliban are being taking off the battlefield. That's a misrepresentation," Van Linschoten said. "It is meant to be taken as meaning that we are taking out the brains behind the Taliban off the battlefield, but that claim doesn't really measure up."
The report, entitled A Knock on the Door, echoes a study published last month by the Open Society Foundations. That study said that although Isaf had made strides in reducing the number of civilian casualties, the 12 to 20 raids a night over a sustained period, with thousands of arrests, many of them of non-combatants, was alienating the population and undermining the international coalition's aims in Afghanistan.
"The raids are a far blunter weapon that we have been led to believe, and they have an indiscriminate impact," said Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Foundations and co-author of that report. "The number one complaint we hear across the country is that all the men in a place where there is a night raid are detained, even if they just have tangential connections to the insurgents, that they gave them food or are related to them. And these raids dominate popular perceptions of the international forces, and of the Kabul government."
Statistics on the number of Taliban "leaders" killed or captured were frequently used by the former Isaf commander, and now CIA director, General David Petraeus, to prove his claims that his forces were making progress on the battlefield.
The use of night raids grew steadily during Petraeus's time in Afghanistan, from July 2010 to July this year, and tailed off significantly after his departure to take up his new intelligence chief post in Washington. Van Linschoten found that some of the claimed statistics of leaders killed or captured provided in briefings to the US press were far in excess of the totals of the press releases over the same period.
In one example, a story in USA Today in March 2011 quoted US military figures as saying that "raids have taken out 900 Taliban leaders" between July 2010 and March 2011. According to the new report, however, the press release accounts for 215 leaders captured and 95 killed, with 180 facilitators captured and 10 killed.
"Even if we assume that all those described as 'leaders' and 'facilitators' in the press releases are who Isaf thought they were, that still leaves a shortfall of 400 individuals," the report said.
A Nato spokesman said that many deaths and detentions are not mentioned in the press releases for a variety of reasons, including the desire to keep them secret for a period for intelligence reasons, or because the deaths of Taliban fighters in skirmishes and battles may only become apparent after the event. Another spokesman said that it was not surprising that several Taliban fighters were killed for each leader.
"The ratio of senior officers to troops can be 10 to one or 20 to one. We call it the tooth-to-tail ratio," the spokesman said. He added that the impact of the raids were making themselves clear on the battlefield in Afghanistan. "The average age of mid-to-high level commanders has dropped over the years. Control has to be handed down to younger and younger people."